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by Yael Adler | March 31, 2009


One would think that Freud has little place in the working world. After all, what can psychodynamic theory, in all its complexity and obscurity, have any value to work and organizations? More scientifically focused psychologists have long rejected the purely conjectural and theoretical nature of Freud's ideas. As they say - where's the data?!

Surprisingly, there is data, not on the theory as a whole, but on specific aspects of the theory. Fundamental components of psychodynamic theory have been scientifically and empirically tested and documented, specifically as they relate to cognitive and emotional processes. These areas, in turn, have much to do with organizational life.

One area of the theory that affects organizational behavior is the importance of unconscious symbols. Each of us has a representation, a "prototype" or "script" of our self, others, events. These scripts are carried within us and they affect how we react across situations. Traits, features, stories, emotions, past experiences, etc., all influence how we act and react in our daily lives, and that includes our working lives. In common parlance we refer to this phenomenon as "emotional baggage."

One example of the application of symbolism in the organization is what's referred to in Industrial/Organizational Psychology as the "Halo Effect" in performance ratings. Managers often detect two or three positive traits in an employee, and then attribute an entire prototype/stereotype of an effective worker to that individual, regardless of the rest of that individual's performance. Employee performance evaluation, then, is influenced by the manager's unconscious "script," by what the manager expects to see in the situation, rather than by the realities of the situation itself.

Likewise, employees often react to leaders based on their own unconscious scripts. These scripts have their foundations in experiences with other childhood authorities, especially parents. The classic sarcastic reaction to the mention of Freud is "so, tell me about your mother..."(stroke beard, heavy Germanic accent). As denigrated as his theories often are, there is basis in Freud's assertions that childhood plays such a vital role in the makeup of a person's psyche. Empirically proven and scientifically tested learning theory has shown over and over that humans learn most easily in childhood; this should necessarily apply to all types of learning - emotional and intellectual. We bring to every experience a style of interacting that is learned, and that learning begins and is strongest in childhood. How we relate and interact with our parents, therefore, certainly affects how we relate to others - especially authority figures - later on in our lives.~There are other staples of working life that have their roots in psychodynamic theory. Take "workaholism," for instance, an illness that affects too many of us! We all joke about people being workaholics. But Howard Schwartz, who writes about job involvement and organizational commitment, sees workaholic behavior as a reflection of the very Freudian concept of neurotic compulsivity/obsessive behavior. Workaholics can't stop thinking about work, they can't leave their work, they can't create interests outside of work: classic obsessive/compulsive behavior. Schwartz coined a fabulous term, characterizing what he does as looking at "the dark side of work involvement through the prism of Freud." When looked at in that way, workaholic behavior goes from being annoying to being potentially pathological!

Not surprisingly, the Freudian concept of narcissism crops up across a number of organizational areas. Richard Kopelman writes about narcissism and job satisfaction. His research has found that narcissists tend to show higher levels of dissatisfaction on the job. Their egoism is so great that nothing could match what they think they deserve. Even Paradise would fall short against their sense of self-worth. We all know people who fit this mold. The self-entitlement and self-aggrandizement is so great that they are impossible to work with. They are even more impossible to work for.

In an article in the Academy of Management Executive (1994), Manfred Kets de Vries, a leading researcher in the field, writes that narcissism lies at the heart of leadership. Before anyone gets upset by the use of the term, he defines two kinds of narcissism - the "good" kind - what he calls constructive narcissism - and the "bad" kind - reactive narcissism. What drives constructive leaders is the need for greatness. Thus, in their role as leaders, they may take advice and consult with others, although they will always take credit for the ultimate decision. Such leaders can be inspiring and larger than life; in fact, they have worked hard to become so and most definitely are so in their own minds! They can be transformational leaders, even role models. They can inspire others not only to be better at what they do, but to entirely change what they do. ~On the other hand, Reactive Leaders are driven toward achievement and attainment by the need to get even with perceived slights experienced in childhood (again, the pervasive effects of childhood). As leaders, they require "yes men." They will not tolerate disagreement. They can be cruel and even abusive to subordinates. Their anger is directed toward submissive and weak people, because it can't be directed toward the sources of humiliation in their youth. Such leaders consult with no one - they know everything, they can make all decisions on their own. Reactive Leaders never experience defeat; if they do, they immediately scapegoat others in the organization to take the blame. Such leaders cannot deal with criticism. They are ruthless.

Where does this leave the organization?

One approach is to work with such individuals and address their work-related problems through psychoanalysis. Kets de Vries does this with upper level organizational leaders in intensive long-term therapy. The problem arises when work issues are addressed on a group level in short-term intervention that focuses on uncovering unconscious motivations underlying work-related behavior. Doing so often begins to look like group therapy taking place in the office. And this is dangerous on many levels. It can bring forth many issues and experiences that are inappropriate to be discussed and investigated in the workplace. It can exacerbate tensions that already exist, and with this type of short-term intervention, there might not be enough time to fully and adequately deal with those tensions, leaving the group worse off than when intervention began. While aspects of Freudian theory definitely apply and play out in the workplace, dealing with them IN the workplace might not be the best forum. It is important, though, for people at all levels of the organization to be aware of possible unconscious dynamic currents underlying observable work behavior. After all, psychological awareness is the first step toward psychological health!


Filed Under: Workplace Issues